Invited talk: The problem of meaning in AI and robotics

I was invited to give a talk at the conference cycle of the Cognitive Robotics Laboratory. The conference will celebrate the lab’s 10th anniversary, and will take place Feb. 21-22 at UAEM in Cuernavaca. Here is my title and abstract:

The problem of meaning in AI and robotics

Tom Froese

In recent years there has been a lot of renewed excitement about the possibilities of creating advanced artificial intelligence (AI) that could rival the human mind. I cast doubt on this prospect by reviewing past revolutions in cognitive robotics, specifically the shift toward embodied cognition in the 90s and the recent emphasis on the enactive approach. I argue that despite claims to the contrary, these revolutions did not manage to overcome the fundamental problem of meaning, which was first identified following the various theoretical and practical problems faced by Good Old-Fashioned AI. Similarly, even after billions of dollars of investment, today’s commercial computational systems simply do not understand anything in the way that humans or, so I argue, even the simplest living creatures do. I therefore propose a paradigm shift in how to conceptualize the overall vision and goals of the synthetic method: we should stop aiming to replicate human understanding with AI, and instead focus on helping humans better realize their potential via human-computer interfaces, including robotic systems.


Seminar at Hokkaido University

Next week I will be visiting Hokkaido University, Sapporo, in order to continue my collaborations with Prof. Shigeru Taguchi on enactive and phenomenological approaches to cognitive science.

As part of my visit, I will give a seminar on “schizophrenia as a disorder of affectivity” on Thursday evening, January 17. Details below:

Distinctive movement patterns during embodied interaction by adults with HFA

Our latest analyses suggest that mutual gaze avoidance by people with autism could generalize to mutual touch avoidance during embodied interaction.

Multi-scale coordination of distinctive movement patterns during embodied interaction between adults with high-functioning autism and neurotypicals

Leonardo Zapata-Fonseca, Dobromir G. Dotov, Ruben Y. Fossion, Tom Froese, Leonhard Schilbach, Kai Vogeley, and Bert Timmermans

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be understood as a social interaction disorder. This requires researchers to take a “second-person” stance and to use experimental setups based on bidirectional interactions. The present work offers a quantitative description of movement patterns exhibited during computer mediated real-time sensorimotor interaction in 10 dyads of adult participants, each consisting of one control individual (CTRL) and one individual with high functioning autism (HFA). We applied time-series analyses to their movements and found two main results. First, multi-scale coordination between participants was present. Second, despite this dyadic alignment and our previous finding that individuals with HFA can be equally sensitive to the other’s presence, individuals’ movements differed in style: in contrast to CTRLs, HFA participants appeared less inclined to sustain mutual interaction and instead explored the virtual environment more generally. This finding is consistent with social motivation deficit accounts of ASD, as well as with hypersensitivity-motivated avoidance of overstimulation. Our research demonstrates the utility of time series analyses for the second-person stance and complements previous work focused on non-dynamical and performance-based variables.

perceptual crossing

Summer school “Introduction to Enactivism” in Hokkaido, Japan

Next August I will be one of three instructors in a summer school on enactive philosophy of mind and cognitive science in beautiful Hokkaido, Japan! The other instructors are Shigeru Taguchi (phenomenology) and Masatoshi Yoshida (neuroscience), so this will be a truly interdisciplinary experience.

We are looking for motivated students to join us in this enactive summer school!

Title and abstract below. For more details please see the course website:

Introduction to Enactivism: Moving to Know, Knowing to Move

The aim of this course is to give an introduction to enactivism by lectures and experimental practices. Enactivism is a philosophical view on cognition and experience that Francisco Varela and other scholars developed. According to this view, cognition and experience are not just passive processes, but a kind of ”making up” of reality through our action.

In this course, students can examine to what extent the enactive view of experience is convincing by discussing in the classroom and doing experimental practices using special instruments and devices.

Schedule: 05/Aug/2019 – 09/Aug/2019
Level: Graduate
Language: English

Book review of Fuchs’ Ecology of the Brain

In our group’s seminars we read Thomas Fuchs’ (2018) Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind by Oxford University Press. Here is the review that I wrote based on our discussions.

Book Review: Ecology of the Brain: The Phenomenology and Biology of the Embodied Mind

Tom Froese

Fuchs (2018) book starts with a wake-up call. We are facing social and ecological crises that threaten the flourishing of future generations. Ideally, therefore, the sciences of the mind should help us to better understand on what basis a person can take responsible action, and thereby contribute to empowering people in their capacity to make a difference. Yet mainstream human neuroscience confronts us with the hypothesis that our self, free will, consciousness, and hence also our conscience, are nothing but internal fictions fabricated by patterns of nervous activity.

Fuchs’ book is a valuable reminder of the high price of this sort of reductionism, which realizes the ideal of naturalizing the mind at the cost of leaving no theoretical room for people to genuinely make a difference for others in the world. It is a scientific worldview that implicitly legitimizes todays widespread sense of isolation and apathy. A key motivation for Fuchs is to shore up resistance against this encroachment upon our personal lifeworld, but he wisely refrains from overplaying this appeal to our conscience. The book’s main contribution lies in demonstrating that doing justice to the complexities and ambiguities of human existence actually leads to a more mature cognitive science and a more coherent philosophy of mind.

Perspective piece on the concept of opioid addiction

This perspective piece on opioid addiction resulted from a workshop on enactive approaches to psychopathology our group organized last year. The science of addiction is in desperate need of a better theoretical framework, and we hope to be able to contribute to its development in the coming years.

The Clinical Concept of Opioid Addiction Since 1877: Still Wanting After All These Years

Christian G. Schütz, Susana Ramírez-Vizcaya, and Tom Froese

In 1877, the psychiatrist Edward Levinstein authored the first monograph on opioid addiction. The prevalence of opioid addiction prior to his publication had risen in several countries including England, France and Germany. He was the first to call it an illness, but doubted that it was a mental illness because the impairment of volition appeared to be restricted to opioid use: it was not pervasive, since it did not extend to other aspects of the individuals’ life. While there has been huge progress in understanding the underlying neurobiological mechanisms, there has been little progress in the clinical psychopathology of addiction and in understanding how it relates to these neurobiological mechanisms. A focus on cravings has limited the exploration of other important aspects such as anosognosia and addiction-related behaviors like smuggling opioids into treatment and supporting the continued provision of co-patients. These behaviors are usually considered secondary reactions, but in clinical practice they appear to be central to addiction, indicating that an improved understanding of the complexity of the disorder is needed. We propose to consider an approach that takes into account the embodied, situated, dynamic, and phenomenological aspects of mental processes. Addiction in this context can be conceptualized as a habit, understood as a distributed network of mental, behavioral, and social processes, which not only shapes the addict’s perceptions and actions, but also has a tendency to self-maintain. Such an approach may help to develop and integrate psychopathological and neurobiological research and practice of addictions.

Editorial introduction to 4E cognition research in Mexico

With the aim of promoting and raising awareness about embodied, embedded, extended, and enactive cognition (4EC) research here in Mexico, Ximena and I organized a special issue on this theme.

In our editorial introduction we show that 4EC research in Mexico has fertile ground to build on, as there are several local traditions that are sympathetic to its core principles:

Grounding 4E Cognition in Mexico: introduction to special issue on spotlight on 4E Cognition research in Mexico

Ximena Gonzalez-Grandón and Tom Froese

Embodied, embedded, extended and enactive (4EC) perspectives on cognition have gained epistemic legitimacy during the last 25 years in the international arena. They have encouraged new ways to understand the mind. Mexico has not been an exception; rather, it has the potential to provide a fertile ground for the development of 4EC perspectives, as shown by the variety of contributions in this special issue. In this editorial introduction, we discuss recent concerns about a lack of coherence in the inter-relations between these perspectives, and we propose that it is more appropriate to view 4EC as an emerging pluralistic research tradition that shares crucial commitments. Furthermore, we show that this pluralistic tradition has been gaining ground in the specific research context of Mexico, because of the country’s distinctive historical, scientific and philosophical development. We finish by describing the promising research potential of the current heterogeneous explanations as evidenced by the papers in this issue.

Talk on the cognitive science of cave art

I have been invited by the social anthropologists of the National School of Anthropology and History of the North of Mexico to visit them in Chihuahua.

I am excited by this opportunity to discuss the enactive approach to social interaction and to see how it can be put into a mutually informing relationship with anthropology.

Paper on how communal ritual makes social hierarchy more effective

Our contribution to the “Special Issue on Social Learning and Cultural Evolution with Cognitive Systems“, edited by Peter Andras and James Borg, has been accepted for publication in the journal Cognitive Systems Research.

Here is the title and abstract. Clicking the title will open a pre-print version.

Modeling collective rule at ancient Teotihuacan as a complex adaptive system: Communal ritual makes social hierarchy more effective

Tom Froese and Linda R. Manzanilla

Experts remain divided about the nature of the sociopolitical system of ancient Teotihuacan, which was one of the earliest and largest urban civilizations of the Americas. Excavations hoping to find compelling evidence of powerful rulers, such as a royal tomb, keep coming away empty-handed. But the alternative possibility of collective rule still remains poorly understood as well. Previously we used a computational model of this city’s hypothetical sociopolitical network to show that in principle collective rule based on communal ritual could be an effective strategy of ensuring widespread social coordination, as long as we assume that the network’s structure could be transformed via social learning and local leaders were not strongly subdivided. Here we extended this model to investigate whether increased social hierarchy could mitigate the negative effects of such strong divisions. We found a special synergy between social hierarchy and communal ritual: only their combination improved the extent of social coordination, whereas the introduction of centralization and top-down influence by themselves had no effect. This finding is consistent with portrayals of the Teotihuacan elite as religious specialists serving the public good, in particular by synchronizing the city’s ritual calendar with the rhythms of the stars.

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